Friso Spoelstra’s best photograph: a pagan whipping ritual in the mountains of Sardinia

Interview by Thursday 21 July 2016.

One day in 2001, I was sitting in my local pizzeria in Amsterdam, flicking through an Italian magazine while waiting for my order, when suddenly these men in huge shaggy costumes sprung at me from the page. I asked the waiter if he knew what it was and he smiled, saying they were taking part in a pagan ritual in Sardinia, where he was from.

‘He whipped me again and again’ … the Merdule comes after Friso Spoelstra Photograph: Friso Spoelstra

Every spring in Barbagia, a remote mountainous part of the Italian island, they hold the Feste Pagane. It symbolises fertility, mysterious brotherhoods, and the struggle between the people and the spirits who freeze the land in the winter, leaving it barren. The guy in the black mask is called a Merdule. He symbolises the bond between man and nature. Traditionally, Sardinians have always been shepherds so the ritual is also to protect the flock against evil. The Merdule does this quite literally – beating villagers and chasing them away from the “sheep”.

This was one of the first shots I took after I arrived. The next moment, the Merdule hit me on the legs with his whip. It was really painful. Then he did it again. And again. I realised it was going to go on all the day, though it wasn’t just for me of course: all Sardinians were being terrorised. Although the atmosphere was mostly fun, there was a scary, violent undercurrent.

I had decided to photograph such rituals all around Europe – a project that ended up taking 10 years, saw me visit 15 countries, and resulted in a book called Devils & Angels. In the German Alps, where devils called Krampus chased people, I saw a man – clearly from out of town – getting really upset and swearing because he’d been hit. A policeman had to calm him down and explain it was just the local custom.

I’ve been chased by devils through the mountains. I’ve run naked through fields in Latvia. I’ve been drenched in all kinds of stuff – sometimes I never found out what it was. The rituals I attend often take place in small villages, on islands, or up in the mountains. Remoteness is perhaps why the customs survive. The festivals bring communities together, but also give a feeling of local identity, especially as young people move away. On Terschelling, an island in the Netherlands, I met a man who flies from Sydney every year for a festival there.

My photographs arise from what I feel, not just what I see. I like how this shot is quite grey. This part of Sardinia isn’t very colourful, which really adds to the sinister atmosphere. The composition was intentional: masked men in the foreground, church in the background. The contrast between pagan and Christian, past and present, all comes together in this shot.

Having spent the day chasing villagers and performing small plays, the flock and the shepherd got tired and headed home. You have no idea who is behind the masks, so it’s a shock when they introduce themselves. I was invited back to the house of one masked men and ate homemade cheese and wine with his family. I had been beaten up – but by some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.

Friso Spoelstra’s Devils & Angels: Ritual Feasts in Europe is published by Lecturis.

Interview by Thursday 21 July 2016.

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